A dramatic misfire that bills itself as a modern-day fairytale—but can’t seem to decide whether it wants to exist in the real world or one more fantastically inclined—Siren is both thinly imagined and problematically executed. An Austin Film Festival debut from British-born writer-director Jesse Peyronel, the movie inelegantly doles out its plot in hunks of exposition, and generally comes across as an unfinished old Tales From the Crypt episode, vacuumed free of any real sense of cathartic fun or scares.
The story centers around Leigh (Vinessa Shaw), who lives behind locked gates and surrounded by security cameras in a little cottage on the edge of a small Massachusetts town. The reason for this extreme isolation, it quickly becomes apparent, is that Leigh’s strong pheromones make her an object of ultimate sexual desire for any and all men who come across her. Until, that is, one day onto her property stumbles a drifter named Guy (Rob Kazinsky, a sort of budget Thomas Jane), who presents himself as an ex-soldier left with no sense of smell from a wartime mortar attack (!), as well as a handyman who can help but insist on fixing up her rundown abode.
Despite old scientific experiment videos and other intimations that Leigh still lives under threat of a shadowy cabal stretching all the way back to her childhood (she explains her source of income thusly: “Once a month I dilute a bit of myself and send it to laboratories, where they drop a bit into all their best-selling perfumes”), Siren funnels a lot of its central conflict through nearby townsfolk—in particular Carl (Ross Partridge), an abusive lout who becomes infatuated with Leigh, and his jealous wife Agnes (Bess Wohl). As a conflicted Guy grows closer to Leigh, he struggles with how to adequately protect her from danger both clear and present, as well as further off on the horizon.
Siren’s failures fall almost exclusively at the feet of debut feature director Peyronel. Despite the inherent comedy of its premise (as embodied in something like South Park’s “Bebe’s Boobs Destroy Society” episode), he plays the material seriously and without the benefit of any counterbalancing levity. Unfortunately, as rendered there’s really no dramatic tension to this story. Leigh understandably grows closer to Guy, and he to her, but Peyronel doesn’t give them enough time to swoon, and neither does he tack toward something more sinister, infusing his movie with horror leanings that might give it some edgy counterpoint.
Most damningly, however, is the fact that Peyronel can’t write an honest argument or emotional moment to save his life, and he seeds his movie with howlingly bad dialogue. When Carl breaks off an impulsive yet half-hearted attempt to have sex with his wife, Agnes whinges, “It’s me right? I’m no longer the prettiest girl in town.” Later, in the movie’s penultimate showdown, Peyronel has a character go to the trouble of seemingly explaining the very concept of suicide, spitting, “He left this note, it’s addressed to you. He couldn’t have you in his life and so he took it. And now I’ll take yours!”
Siren also just looks cheap, and cheesy. Ostensibly, Peyronel and cinematographer Ross Richardson aim to use color shifts to indicate different feelings, but the movie is suffused with too-bright streaming sunlight that makes it come across as some sort of ill-conceived Hallmark movie-of-the-week. Similarly, the production design, by David Dean Ebert, is incongruous at best, full of inoffensively pretty flowers, dusty books and a mix of old-style electronics that look like the sort of portable televisions one took on camping trips in the 1980s. (When Guy then rewires them to receive color images instead of the previous black-and-white, and explains that since Leigh couldn’t travel he “brought the world to [her],” complete with live-cam shots of popular tourist spots around the world, Leigh doesn’t seem phased by this thing called the Internet, or any worldly developments it might harbor.)
In movies as disparate as Eyes Wide Shut, The Hills Have Eyes, 3:10 to Yuma, Garden Party and Two Lovers, Shaw has shown a wonderful ability to accurately take the pulse and tone of her surroundings, and then blend her character seamlessly with each film’s backdrop. It’s a sign of Siren’s across-the-board problems, then, that even she falls victim to its clunky dialogue and awkwardly staged scenes—the most immediately recognizable example of which may be one of those unwieldy scenarios in which someone is meant to be picking up another character’s laundry, and then discover something that falls out of a pocket.
It’s an old trope, this, but one whose self-consciousness can be sidestepped if presented correctly. When handled poorly, however, this set-up screams phoniness, and can make a viewer want to thump the writer in the back of his or her head. Alas, Peyronel can’t even get this moment right. Small missteps like this, combined with way bigger dealbreakers—and garishly amateurish supporting performances to boot—destroy all of Siren’s potential allure. What could have been a workably interesting story about the perils of attraction, and the isolation that intensity of feeling can paradoxically engender, instead just becomes a boring fable with no voice worth hearing.
Director: Jesse Peyronel
Writer: Jesse Peyronel
Starring: Vinessa Shaw, Rob Kazinsky, Ross Partridge, Bess Wohl
Release Date: August 21, 2015
Entertainment journalist Brent Simon is Time Magazine’s 2006 Person of the Year and a sworn enemy to auto-play website videos, as well as a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.